Test Anxiety – How to help your students ace tests every time!

Taking any test is challenging so it’s perfectly normal to be a little nervous and stressed before taking these all important standardized tests. A touch of anxiety can keep students focused at peak performance. However, for some test takers this normal anxiety is more intense and impacts performance. In fact, just the thought of taking tests can send them into a tailspin. There are those students who become so anxious its overwhelming so that their performance doesn’t reflect their true ability. Ellen Smith LCSW, licensed clinical social worker and Certified Health Coach, says “being anxious about taking tests is very common, especially the SAT’s because there is so much pressure from teachers, parents and peers on students to get good scores and often getting into the college of their choice is at stake.” Peter Van Buskirk speaker, author of Winning The Admissions Game, former admissions counselor and consultant adds “This is especially true for selective institutions where the stakes are highest and the emphasis on testing seems to be greatest. “ It’s no secret these are tough tests and a respectable score can be a critical component of college applications. Ronnie Demler the SAT coach agrees and remarks “While the SAT’s are an important part of the application package, its still just one part of the package, don’t overemphasize its importance.” So as counselors we need to drill that into our students.
Test anxiety can be potentially serious when it leads to such high levels of anxiety and stress resulting in underperformance. For some the nervousness and self doubt they feel before a test is so intense that it impacts their concentration. Ellen Smith LCSW says “like other anxiety reactions test anxiety affects the body and the mind. There are physical symptoms, such as, a pounding pulse, nausea, rapid breathing, sweating and or butterflies. The mental symptoms are inability to organize thoughts, forgetting what you know, careless mistakes, reading without understanding the questions and blanking out. “These red flags range from mild to severe can and interfere with test taking ability and how students do on exams.
The most common barrier to achieving a maximum score on the SAT’s is anxiety about the test. Marty O’Connell executive director of Colleges That Change Lives says “Most stress stems from not having enough information about the testing process and fearing what might happen, taking sample tests in advance to become familiar with test format, to learn how to focus for four hours and discover strengths and weaknesses will go a long way to reducing test anxiety.” But there are other ways of reducing that anxiety so that students can do their best. Like anything else that requires practice, preparing for standardized tests is possible .Even if students have test anxiety they can increase their scores and perform at their best when the pressure is on. By being prepared student confidence rises so some anxiety slips away. Coach students that studying well in advance may sound like a drag but the results will be worth the effort. Feeling ready to meet the challenge can keep test anxiety from spinning out of control. If your students have a tendency towards test anxiety helping them develop ways to cope will allow them to do their best on tests. Ronnie Demler The SAT Coach says “There are no shortcuts; it’s not wise to look for a trick that will dramatically raise your score with little effort.” He adds, “Those students who are very well prepared tend to have less anxiety. In his experience, true confidence comes from competence, not psychological tricks” With that said follow these tips before the test to reduce your anxiety so your students can make your way calmly through the test.
It’s About Time: Advise students to establish a study plan make a commitment and schedule it over time
– Ellen Smith, says “studying in a consistent manner will decrease test anxiety. Waiting to the last minute to cram is not helpful when managing anxiety.” No amount of cramming can replace the deeper learning that happens over time with regular studying.

Help students set A Goal: Know the average score of students admitted to their favorite college –this will be their target score, which may help reduce stress if they know they scored within that range. Marty O Connell says “gather testing data for those colleges you are interested in applying too by checking most recent profiles of the class admitted and enrolled. “

Focus on Learning! Coach students to be prepared to dedicate a 100% of your energy into studying. In fact, 20-50 minute chunks of highly focused studying are more valuable than two hours of ineffective work.

Practice makes Perfect! Advise students to get comfortable with the test format. Take many practice tests under realistic conditions. Ronnie Demler says “prompt students to make sure to time themselves and go over every question they get wrong or skip. Review where they succeeded and what they need to work on. The more your students are accustomed to answering questions, time constraints, and pacing, the more comfortable they will feel when they do sit down to take the real test!”

Just Chill Out! Help students integrate relaxation techniques into their routine to call upon right before the test and during the test to help stay calm, confident and focused such as deep breathing, imagining a positive outcome or repetition of positive mantras. Ellen Smith says “these techniques will help reduce anxiety, make testing less stressful and help students focus. Also, prompt them to watch for negative messages they might be sending themselves about the test, which can contribute to anxiety.
Help students establish a consistent pretest routine: Help students learn what works to reduce their anxiety and have them follow those steps every time they are getting ready to take a test!”

Reading Rocks: Remind students it’s unanimous, everyone agrees, start reading a lot. Ronnie Demler says “Students who spend hours reading for pleasure usually do extremely well on the Critical Reading and Writing sections of the SAT. Spend at least an hour every single day, read the classics, newspapers, magazines. Doing so will improve grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension skills, reading speed and your writing skills.”

Prompt students to sleep on it! Catch Some ZZZ’s: Forget about all nighters; researchers say getting a good night sleep before exams is key to doing well! Sleep deprivation can negatively impact performance, energy level, ability to focus and concentration.

Encourage students to have Great Expectations! Instill the attitude that allows students to think positively but realistically, avoiding perfectionism and aiming for excellence!

Dawn Marie Barhyte is a widely published freelance writer and former educator who continues to touch the lives of young people through her writing.